Sunday, May 24, 2009

Reinforcing Me

On Friday, I had a very reinforcing experience regarding clicker training. So much of the training itself is reinforcing, but sometimes it's nice to get feedback from others. Clicker training is still not very mainstream and more often than not raises eyebrows with many people. The most defensive, of course, are those with a long history of training with other methods. Many of us who clicker train, come from those same backgrounds so it's easy to understand their resistance since we had those ourselves....but it's frustrating to see them discount it without really considering it fully.

Elly's owners came to visit her on Friday.
I have written about Elly in previous blogs: mat exercises, WWYLM, and single rein riding. I have been very happy with her progress but no one has really asked her to do much in the way of "dressage". When I ride her, my goals are Alex Kurland's exercises; when my student rides her, my goal is the student's position, confidence and control, as well as developing a feel for the horse.

Elly's owners are wonderful people who adore her but outgrew her and wanted a place she could live happily, with attention from kids, preferably one "special" kid. I had a student who was ready for a more able mount so it seemed like a great match. The owners' opinion of Elly was that she didn't love flatwork and might have some discomfort in her body somewhere that prevented her from cooperating when asked to carry herself much. She would stop and begin backing up in earnest. They were aware of her training background which included quite a bit of pressure and "gear" and were happy to hear that I was not a fan of that approach. They had her checked thoroughly by vets and chiropractor who found nothing so they decided that just being a beginner horse was what she wanted to do.

On Friday, her teenaged owner just wanted to get on her bareback for a bit and go for a little hack. I told her my challenges with lesson ponies wanting to roll in the new sand I put down in the arena and asked if she'd mind taking Elly out there for a minute or two first to give her another "no rolling allowed!" ride as I had done the day before. She was happy to do so and when she got in the arena, she picked up the reins and began to walk around. A look of astonishment crossed her face and her mom said, "Look at her, she looks great!". I don't even remember what the girl said, but it was something about how light or soft or easy she was. I had to admit, Elly had immediately responded to the reins being picked up by gathering herself into a lovely little frame. I said the girl must have learned a lot riding her new horse and she said, "no, she was never like this before!".

What a great thing to hear. I had told them the things I was doing with her, and the mom said repeatedly how happy she was- that she had tried previously to get the trainers to keep the excess gear off her and "just let her find it herself!" but were either over-ruled or it was done subversively. Elly made no attempts to roll, so they went off down the road as they had when in previous years, daughter riding and mom walking alongside. When they returned the mom said that her daughter expressed how happy Elly seemed. I was very glad to have them see it and believe it and VERY glad to have the opportunity to work with this horse with the approval and support of her owners.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Desensitizing Rumer to the hose

Being a little paint pony, I am always impressed with how clean Rumer manages to look. I am having someone come and take photos of the ponies next week though and would love to get her summer-shiny sooner rather than later so I started wondering about giving her a bath. I don't have anything as fancy as a wash stall so it means buckets and hoses to get the job done. I knew the hose would be on my list of things to do with her this year so I decided I might as well get started. Actually I started back when I first pulled the hose out this spring for filling water tubs. Before hooking it up, I hung it on the side of the round pen and introduced it to her, clicking and treating for having her touch it, step over it, etc.

So today I turned the hose on very slightly and took her out to the side paddock where there was lots of grass and the trickling hose. I did not have a plan. Rumer can be tough because she is so suspicious and worried about some things. I had used Alexandra Kurland's "Overcoming Fear and the Power of Cues" DVD to get Rumer to wear a blanket and it was slow progress...but successful. But I learned a lot in the process and I think I should have used this format with the hose. The problem was that the area I was using was grassy (less splash, no one else in there and the hose could reach!) and I was afraid her desire to put her head down to eat would make it difficult to use head down as a calming signal. She might put it down to eat, even if she was still worried about the hose.

So I experimented with several things. First I C/T'd for her touching the hose. It was much scarier with water dribbling out of it than it had been when it was just a hose. The water sparkled unpredictably in the sun and made a noise as it hit the ground. But she did reach out and touch it several times so we were on our way. Then I pointed it to the ground in front of her, thinking to work it toward her feet. I quickly realized that when it was at her feet, she couldn't SEE it. I was afraid it would startle her when she felt it. Even though she had reached out and touched it, it was clear by her expression that she wasn't comfortable with it. She was being very brave and trying very hard, not relaxed. I knew I was teetering on the edge of her deciding it would be safer to walk away. I knew I didn't want this because I wanted her actively engaged in the process, not me pursuing her. I gave myself my own goal: see how close I could get the water to her feet without her moving. Rather than expecting HER to stand still, the goal was now MINE to go so carefully and slowly as to not cause her to move. I was successful to the point of getting her whole hoof wet: first the bottom, then moving on up. Of course every time I did touch her foot with the water, I C/T'd her. But then I got greedy and tried to hold the hose there for too long, rather than just a quick splash. She yanked her foot up and didn't want to leave it down again.

So I changed the trial a little. Seeing how she was still worried watching the water come out of the hose (even though she was standing still, her ears were sharply forward and her head cocked as she tried to keep an eye on it), I tried to come up with a way to get her comfortable and feeling safe. Standing in front of her, I held the hose out to my side and just flicked it up and down. First once, C/T for four feet still; then twice, C/T, etc. After about 5 flicks, I switched sides and did the same on her left. Again, she was very good and brave and stood still, but did not look to be relaxing about it. She did seem to be focusing on the water hitting the ground, rather than the hose itself, so I cautiously pointed it away from her and placed my thumb over the end so it sprayed out far away and the noise stopped. This actually seemed to be less stressful to her. She was curious and reached her nose out to the water. As soon as she reached, I C/T'd. I wanted to reward her for approaching this scary thing, rather than retreating from it. She caught on pretty quickly and took a step toward the spraying water- C/T. I repeated this about 5 times and thought it was pretty neat that she was following the spraying water. By this time I was out of treats and so finished off with a peppermint. I was far from spraying her body with the hose- but also far from having her wanting to get away from it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Teaching Others Leading and Handling

I was one of the presenters at an Instructor's Clinic on Saturday. My session was to be on teaching the youngest and most novice riders. Learning about clicker training and TAG teaching has really helped me to learn how to break behaviors down into manageable steps as well as be clear with my cues and instructions. Many of us who are instructors were never actually taught the basics- we learned them by trial and error and by watching others. But people new to horses, whether children or adults, really benefit by learning a consistent way of doing something as simple as leading a horse.

Before you can begin to teach a person how to lead, you have to have a pony who has been taught a consistent method of being led. We all take these things for granted but if you think about going to a new barn and leading horses, often it takes time for you and the horse to learn about each other so you can handle him comfortably- sometimes you learn his quirks, sometimes the horse learns yours. As I told the instructors on Saturday, you see two things when kids lead ponies: either the kid is dragging the pony or the pony is dragging the kid!
And many knowledgeable, experienced horsemen can be found dragging horses or being dragged by horses!

I teach my ponies to walk at my side. Safety dictates that having the horse next to you is safest for the handler. You can see them to gauge their emotions and if they are spooked and shoot forward, you are not going to be run over. I begin by teaching my ponies that a slight pressure on the lead means walk forward. Some people like their horses to move off when they do, but that becomes problematic when you want to walk around in front of your horse and they step forward when you do, right into you. I prefer to have them (especially the lesson ponies) stand until asked to move. So I put a slight pressure forward on the lead and immediately release the pressure and C/T when they step forward. Learning in this way can teach even the most dead camp horse pretty quickly that there is an advantage to stepping right off when asked. As soon as they become prompt and light about stepping off, I wait for two steps to C/T, then three, etc. This way they move off promptly, have their attention on the handler, and are motivated to keep up. Once they are solid at this, I make sure to C/T them sporadically when they are right next to me as I lead. They learn that if they are in the proper position, they may get a random C/T.

Having ponies who know the cues, I can then teach kids and adults the cues to get this behavior. This is harder! People need lots and lots of reminders to leave slack in the lead rope. They want to keep a death grip on the lead, again, either dragging or being dragged. Horses respond to this by pulling back and a tug of war results. Few people think about the fact that you can actually teach horses to stay next to you without constant tugging, just like a dog on "heel". They think that by pulling them and then pulling again and then pulling again, they are teaching them. But they do the same thing day after day after day- the horse has learned nothing, except perhaps to tolerate being pulled. This just makes them dull to pressure on the lead, whether the horse is out front and you are pulling him back or whether he is behind and you are pulling him forward. A horse who has truly been taught will stay next to you of his own accord.

Because this clinic was not a Clicker based group, I focused on the release as the reward method for teaching. "Release!" is one of the comments coming out of my mouth most often when I am working with people. Whether I am teaching leading and handling on the ground or people under saddle, people need to learn to release as a way to reward the horse, even if they never know anything about clicking and treating. Horses are very very sensitive animals who can learn to respond to the lightest of long as they are rewarded for doing so. If they never feel a release, whether from a rope cue; or rein or leg aids, they learn to ignore those aids and just to endure the pressure on their heads, mouths and sides. And that inspires the person to increase the pressure to get a response, which, if never released, just teaches the horse to endure more pressure. It becomes a vicious, escalating series with spurs, whips and harsh bits being added in unnecessarily.

I got some positive feedback from people at the clinic which was rewarding to me. Of course, some people are as shut down as horses and can't open their minds to think that there might be a different approach. But I could see light bulbs going on in the eyes of some. I hope I have planted some seeds for people to consider and that horses and ponies will benefit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ande's Duct Tape Lesson

Yesterday I decided to test Ande's Duct Tape Lesson. Basically what I was testing was his stimulus control. As defined by Karen Pryor, and copied directly from Katie Bartlett's wonderful website, stimulus control is:
1. The animal performs the behavior when the cue is presented

2. The animal does not perform the behavior if the cue is not presented (within that training session - what they do on their own time is not relevant)

3. The animal does not perform another behavior when presented with the cue

4. The animal does not perform that behavior when presented with another cue

So I wanted to see if I had all the different cues for the Duct Tape Lesson properly under stimulus control with Ande. To get the true context of the nuances of the lesson, you should really read Alex Kurland's Step-by-Step book, but this post will log what I did yesterday as a portion of the lesson.

The spots I was focusing on were: his chest to ask him to step back (you can see the way I taught this by doing a search for duct tape on this blog), his hip (the joint) to ask him to move his haunches over, the point of his buttock to ask him to go forward, and his shoulder to ask him to step over with his front feet. The ones I was most curious to see if he would distinguish were the step forward spot and the move haunches over spot. The spots are close enough that I wasn't sure if he'd get confused. I have taught him each of these cues on different days and focused on just those spots until I could get good responses from him with just a pointing of a whip at the spot. I wondered if by lifting the whip to the hip vs the buttock would be clear for him.

I began this session with the chest and just my hand as cue. I wanted to start with an "out of my space" session. I did between 5 and 10 trials and he was spot on (pardon the pun). Then I moved to the hip for haunches over. At this point I switched to a longe whip. My long term goal here was to get better control over his body on a longe line so using the longe whip just helped me stand in one place and reach the various spots and gave him yet another experience with the whip. The first time I pointed at the hip, it did require a tap, rather than just a point, but after a couple taps, he did step over for an immediate C/T. The 5+ trials after that only required a point. Then I switched to the point of buttock for the go forward cue. I was absolutely thrilled to see him immediately take a bold step forward- no question about which direction he was supposed to be going. I did several trials with go forward, then switched to hip over and he got it right away. I was careful to not to try to "trick" him. I wasn't trying to see if I could make him be wrong- that's the opposite of a clicker mentality. I tried to be very clear about where I was pointing and carried my body differently for each as well- more of a longeing position when I asked for the go forward, while I was facing more to the back when I asked for him to swing his hips.

So then we moved on to the shoulder which according to Alex's book should really be the withers but I cue the shoulder for leading purposes. Babies love to lean in to you when they are being led- they lean into each other that way all the time and push each other around. I want my young ones to respond to a light touch on their shoulder as I'm leading and step away from me. Percy is a CHAMP at this. He is absolutely too cute completely crossing his front legs when I ask him :) Ande's not quite so agile but does step away. This is also important for me with longeing because horses tend to spiral in on a circle when being longed. I want to be able to point my whip at his shoulder and have him move away, not because he is afraid of it, but because he has learned that is the correct and rewarded response.

So all in all, I was very happy with with how well he seems to understand all the different spots. Now I can go on and coordinate them all into the dance combinations that Alex suggests in order to teach him to rebalance himself regularly and find his own performance balance.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rumer in harness

Rumer has changed a lot since moving into the paddock with Percy and coming in each night. The paddock they are in has direct access to the barn aisle for their run-in so I need to go through several times a day and squeeze past them to get in and out. This has resulted in a lot of casual contact for her and she has become much more relaxed and like a pet pony!
I have put her on the cross-ties as least once a week for grooming sessions while trying to shed out her wooly mammoth pony coat! I have been able to progress to "clicker free" grooming sessions. She no longer needs the reinforcement of regular clicking to be comfortable with having body parts handled. I proceeded from clicking every 10 curries or brushes, to every 15, to just once per body section (neck, barrel, rump) to not clicking at all for her body but yes for her legs. The last time I groomed her I was able to groom every inch of her without seeing any expression of concern.
One day I decided to try putting the surcingle and breeching of the harness on her. I had clicked her to comfort levels with the surcingle last year and had done the same with just the breeching earlier this year. After grooming her, I took her to the round pen, thinking that if she did explode, she'd have a safe confined space to do it in. But it was a windy day and she was feeling spring sillies so I stopped at the surcingle and just had her wear that around the round pen while we worked on head down and stand on a mat. Even this was a little too much for the day- her head cocked to the side the way it does when she is worried about something. I felt lucky to be able to do what little I had and called it quits without any blowups.
Several days later, I tried again, and this time she was so relaxed that I decided to go ahead and try putting the harness on her while she was cross-tied. You can see from the photo that it was a different day, different story. She was very relaxed with the surcingle and so I added the breeching as well, little by little. First I just laid it on top of her rump and C/T'd for legs not moving, then removed it. Then I did the same but slid it partway back to her tail- C/T. I continued this process until it was sitting in the proper position, then I left it and just C/T'd for duration while she stood quietly. Reading her mood, I thought we could do more and so I began lifting her tail and C/Ting for that. As a little filly who kicked like a mule as an hours old foal, I knew to take this piece very cautiously. I started by just touching her tail- C/T, then wagging it slightly- C/T, then moving it around more and C/T. The big difference I saw in this work is that she now understands the game well enough that as soon as she got clicked for my touching her tail, she knew to keep her feet still and that I would respect her concerns so she could trust me. As a yearling, she was a lot more hesitant to trust me when I showed up with new ideas or objects. Now her attitude is more of a "oh, what are we going to play today?".
After manipulating her tail a fair bit, I held it up just a little and wrapped my finger under it at the top the way a crupper would- C/T. Her ears told me she thought this was a bit weird, but if that was the game I wanted to play, she would play too. I progressed to the point where I put the crupper under her tail but I did not try to buckle it. Then I stepped away and began taking pictures. This was an opportunity for her to stand while I moved away and returned and walked all around her. After a bit she got impatient and started pawing so I waited until she stood still- C/T and then began removing the harness.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hand-Grazing Ande

I've been working Ande about every other day and working on his Happy Faces and focus on me. All our work has been right around his shed or paddock or in the round pen. I wanted to be more confident in our connection before we ventured off further this Spring. The other day I decided I would take him a little further away and let him graze some of the wonderful new grass. My thought was to do something totally new that he would really enjoy, while still being with me. I had recently re-read Alexandra Kurland's "First Rides" chapter in her Riding With the Clicker book in which she describes taking walks with her Robin when he was three. I wanted to use some of the same ideas with Ande- to take him out and have him enjoy our time together so that he wanted to go out an spend time with me. He loves it when I show up with his halter, but as I have said in other posts, he sometimes gets a little wound up or cranky about things.

I took him about 30 feet from his paddock, using the clicker to reward his attention on me and his happy faces as we went. Then I let him drop his head to graze. I probably spent about 15 minutes there, letting him choose to move at will to find the best grass, but I also asked him occasionally to lift his head out of the grass. When he did, I was ready with a click and a peppermint to reinforce him for leaving the grass and paying attention to me. I was glad I had a lot of mints with me as it had to be something really good to be worth leaving grass for!

Then I decided to take the leadrope off and just stay with him as if the rope were on....hoping to show him that we could stay connected without a concrete rope. That worked OK for about 5 minutes but then he decided to go around the apple tree and further away. He decided to trot off a little ways and I couldn't stay with him and remain casual, so I let him go and then casually walked near to him, but not as if I wanted to catch him. I was a bit surprised because his little trot had taken him further from the other horses and I thought if he did anything, he would head back to the others. He was close to the barway entering the hayfield at this point so I looped around behind him, thinking to block him from going further just with my presence. But he decided he'd go a little further and before I could get around him, he trotted off down into the field. He was now quite a ways from the other horses and though he picked his head up to look for them a couple times, he didn't whinny or worry. I was a little stumped as to how I was going to catch this hungry fiend in 15 acres of spring grass! There was a fence just beyond him that had gotten knocked down in the winter snow so I started well away from him and just began picking up posts and pushing them down into the ground as I went, slowly working my way closer to him. Once I got about 15 feet from him, I stopped and just stood there, enjoying the spring sun and letting him feel my presence without making him think I was going to do anything to him. As he grazed his way along, I followed along, just being there with him. I did get a little closer to him and at one point noticed a large muddy patch on his withers. Without thinking much about it, I walked up to him and started rubbing the mud off his coat with my hand. He allowed me to do this with no concern, and so I felt he was OK with my closeness.

I continued to follow along for a while, right next to him as if I did have a rope attached. Then I made the kiss noise to him that I use when I want his attention and he picked his head up toward me. I clicked and gave him a peppermint, and re-attached the lead. Then I let him go back to grazing. I didn't want him to eat too much more of that rich spring grass but I also didn't want him to connect me or the lead with the end of a good thing! So I just stayed a foot or 2 in front of him and let him graze his way toward me, then I would move ahead again. In this way, we slowly made our way back up the hill. When we reached the barway, he tried going a different way but I just stood so that he took the slack out of the rope and then decided to continue on where I was going. By the time we made it back up to the farm drive, he was looking pretty mellow from sun and grass and his eyes and ears were very relaxed as I took him back to his paddock.

So we had a nice time out together, no pressure on him and certainly the best eating he's had in months...all provided courtesy of me!